Via a story on Slashdot comes article about politicians, government officials, and other leaders who are technologically ignorant. This is more common than you might think. I’m not talking about not understanding all of the silly marketing buzzwords that some of the more ignorant use to try to mask the fact that they haven’t a clue (SEO, maximization, synergy, leads, conversions, memetics, viral campaigns, guerrilla marketing — or anyone who calls themselves a “master” or a “guru” which translates as “scammer”). It’s not even about the legitimate technical jargon that engineers use to get to the heart of problems (RFC, SMTP, HTTP, FTP, POP, IMAP, DNS, DHCP, NAS, SAN, smart or dumb-routing, genetic programming and networking). It’s not about whether or not you know a few common sense methods of fixing problems (which usually just amounts to reading the error message and applying some common sense). This is a level of cluelessness that would be like a general at the Pentagon in the 1970s not knowing what a missile was.
Though the government’s role in the Internet is diminishing due to the distributed effects, we still rely on various officials to ensure that consumer interests are not completely ignored by corporate interests and to act to ensure that the net remains a fairly neutral communications medium without toll booths and gatekeepers charging a premium for access to networks they did not build. The government is also charged with punishing bad behavior by passing laws or instituting fines or prison terms for certain classes of offense. How can we trust the government to do that when some of them don’t really know how to use the basic technology of the Internet, let alone understand some of the more advanced experiments being carried out in real-time in this digital space? One Senator, Joe Manchin (D-WV), wanted to ban the sale and distribution of BitCoins which, due to their nature, would be as difficult to ban as attempting to ban pennies and dollar bills. Other Congressional members have had difficulty understanding how guessing someone’s password is not at all the same kind of “hacking” as breaking into a company’s payment server and pulling down the credit card data.
Part of this really is the technical community’s fault. We do so love our little abbreviations. We prefer to talk amongst ourselves and ignore the non-techies because it is, by and large, easier for us to do so. We laugh at some of the users’ honest mistakes. But very rarely do we try to sit down with them and use words and terms they would be able to grasp to explain how the Internet works, how security works online, or even something as simple as how an email “knows” where to go. We all learned most of these things through trial and error ourselves or by being lucky enough to be spotted by a techie as being someone “with potential” early on so we were guided and nurtured until our mentor felt it was time for us to face our own baptism by flamewar.
However, some of it is the fault of those who show no interest in learning how things work. We would never be so understanding of someone refusing to learn how to put gas in their own car, refusing to learn how to use a credit card scanner, or refusing to learn how to balance a checkbook. Instead of laughing when someone mentions that they are “not a computer person” or sounds proud that they aren’t even using the most basic of websites (Facebook) and is content in their ignorance, we should call them out. They are not just making life increasingly difficult for themselves and refusing to adapt to new social behaviors (such as those that discourage taking ten minutes to fill out your check by hand at the register), they are denying themselves the opportunity for future personal and economic growth. After all, when being able to use a computer and being able to understand the basics of computers is important, no employer in their right mind would hire someone who didn’t have a computer at home. When understanding how to reach customers online, it helps to know where to find customers and how to encourage natural, organic, purely-pull oriented tactics instead of ineffective heavy-push tactics as are used in TV and radio.
And, to the rest of the techies out there, when you hear someone making an inexact (or even downright wrong) analogy in an attempt to grasp a technical concept, don’t look down on them. Don’t make fun of them. Help them to understand. At least they’re trying to improve.